The federal opposition has proposed major education reforms to boost Australian skills and drive greater links with our Asian neighbours, as well as outlined plans for a 20 per cent depreciation on various business investments.
Part of this push will be to boost the focus of schools on teaching Asian languages, the shadow treasurer and small business spokesperson, Chris Bowen, said.
Speaking at a CEDA event in Sydney, Mr Bowen said that, for example, more school students were learning Indonesian as a language at school in the 1970s than they are today, despite Indonesia being one of Australia’s major trading partners.
“Asia-relevant capabilities cannot and should not start at university,” he said, suggesting they need to start much earlier.
As part of its “Future Asia Framework”, a greater focus would be placed on integrated Asian language studies into Australian schools, supported by 100 scholarships each year for native speakers to become qualified Asian language teachers.
Mr Bowen also pledged investment in community language schools, so that other Australians outside of schools can also benefit from learning one or more Asian languages.
Another key pillar of Labor’s education policy heading into the election is on early childhood education, he said, and proposed providing ongoing funding for three and four-year-olds to attend preschool.
The shadow treasurer said that doing so effectively extends the current framework, due to expire in December 2019, which only covers four-year-olds.
Almost one in four Australian children are currently starting school “without the necessary foundational learnings” to succeed throughout life, Mr Bowen said, and claimed that such children are twice as likely not to meet NAPLAN standards later in their schooling.
Driving productivity growth through business investment
Noting that a federal election is now less than 100 days away — regardless of which date is ultimately declared — Mr Bowen also discussed the issue of productivity, noting that while business has a role to play, policy reform is also needed to boost the nation’s productivity rates.
“We can’t be a free rider on a healthy global economy — a healthy global economy might not be there,” he said.
The senior opposition figure said that the Australian economy is lagging behind most of its OECD peers, and by catching up with them in terms of innovation, it could unlock $315 billion in value over the next decade.
While the optimal result would be an increase in productivity and increase in wages to match, he said that productivity growth is largely absent at present, while employees are not seeing wage increased to reflect what productivity growth there has been.
“Productivity is not always about cutting,” Mr Bowen said, referencing wages, safety nets and penalty rates.
Instead, he said that Labor would look towards investment to spur productivity, by stimulating business investment.
He outlined plans for a 20 per cent upfront depreciation for business asset purchases, which would not just be limited to physical assets but also various “knowledge-based”, “non-tangible” ones like patents, under an Australian Investment Guarantee.
Mr Bowen also suggested tax cuts for individuals earning less than $120,000 per year. Tax cuts was highlighted as one key policy reform both sides of politics could deliver in the short term to address concerns over consumer spending, economist Michael Blythe said at the same event.
Lack of energy policy stifling investment
When asked by a CEDA delegate about energy policy, Mr Bowen took a dig at the federal government over the issue.
“I want to make a broader point: We [the opposition] have one. At the moment, we [Australia] do not,” he said, and referenced the division over the issue within the federal Coalition that ultimately led to Malcolm Turnbull being dumped as prime minister.
According to Mr Bowen, energy investment, particularly in renewables, is largely at a standstill because of the lack of a national policy framework, which he said is inhibiting investment.
Businesses and individuals will not and should not invest without knowing what the rules are, he said.
“Ideally an energy policy should be bipartisan… in the national interest,” Mr Bowen said, which is why his party had been willing to support the government’s now defunct National Energy Guarantee.
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